What Living With Chronic Stress Did To Me

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I wasn't always a Nutritional Therapist. Fresh out of college I actually jumped right into Corporate America. I worked in a very demanding industry in Washington, DC and was on call all the time. I literally slept with my blackberry on the pillow next to me, so to say sleep was far from a priority would be fair. I never rested. I mean- NEVER. I think the quote I used was "I’ll sleep when I'm dead".  Um…yeah. My body was pretty much in GO-GO-GO mode 24-7.  Sound familiar to anyone?

The stress also numbed my appetite completely and eating was put on the back burner. As in, I just didn’t do it. When I did eat, my fuel was coffee, chocolate and raw veggies- no healthy fats, barely any protein and too much forced stimulation from caffeine and sugar.

I was young and was delusional in my belief that I could sustain this way of living forever- and eventually my body broke down.

I had extreme adrenal fatigue and barely made it through my day. I would wake up and peel myself out of the bed, motivated only by the fact that once I got through my work day I could crawl right back in. I called it “living in survival mode”. My cortisol levels were completely off. I couldn’t sleep through the night even though I was beyond exhausted. My thyroid was failing, I developed a goiter and hypothyroidism.  I lost my period (for 4 years) and was an anxious, mental wreck in a constant brain fog. Sound miserable? Well...it was.  

It took me a very long time to recover from the repercussions of living with chronic stress and although it’s been many years since I left that lifestyle, I still have to be very cautious of my nutrition and self-care.  I have gotten past the adrenal fatigue, but am still vulnerable to relapses and I have to pamper my adrenals daily. I got my period back and reversed my hypothyroidism but it took a couple of years of really focusing on lifestyle and diet modifications. And I have learned to nap and rest, but it took a long time to get me here.

My biggest struggle still, and I think this is the biggest struggle for many people nowadays, is stress management and learning how to prioritize self-care. And unfortunately, stress plays a major role in most health issues, especially endocrine system dysfunction.

Stress has become a major culprit in a variety of modern day health problems, one of the most common being infertility and hormone imbalance. This has to do in part with adrenals, cortisol and their role in stress management.

Cortisol is our "fight or flight" hormone and gives us that extra boost in a state of emergency.  You know that burst of energy you get when a car swerves into your lane? That's the effect of the adrenals reacting to an emergency and releasing cortisol. When the adrenals fire, the body listens. 

Problems arise when this state of emergency occurs all day, every day due to our modern way of living, putting us in a constant state of "chronic' stress.  Modern day emergencies include:

–40+ hour work week and daily commuting (hello road rage!)
– Refined sugars and a high glycemic diet
– Emotional stress
– Coffee and other stimulants
– Alcohol
– Nutritional deficiencies
– Eating too often or not often enough
– Disease

The body's sees survival as the number one priority, which means it will fuel our fight or flight response and put other functions on hold especially hormone production. If the body feels threatened or stressed adrenal function will be favored over reproduction, metabolic rate and all other endocrine functions.

This is where something called the "pregnenolone steal" comes into play. Pregnenolone is the precursor to the production of the sex and adrenal hormones and only so much pregnenolone can be produced by the body. Since adrenal function is favored over reproduction (we can live without producing children) the adrenal glands will steal the prenenolone from the endocrine system to create cortisol and all sex hormone production will come to a halt.  This explains partly why so many people experience fertility issues in our modern-day society.

Aside from lack of sex hormone production by the endocrine system, high cortisol creates other issues as well. Hormones are short lived and not all that are produced are needed. They are created, do their job and then need to shuffled on out of body.

The liver is responsible for deactivating, breaking down, conjugating and removing the hormones that are in excess or no longer functioning.  When there are elevated levels of cortisol, the pathways responsible for these actions are compromised, which means those extra hormones remain in the body affecting our weight, mood and other functions.

You know that extra roll of belly fat that just won’t go away? Excess hormones are probably to blame for that. And they are probably there because the liver is being called away to deal with issues resulting from stress and high cortisol.

Although it is impossible to remove all stress for your life there are ways to lessen it, thereby decreasing your levels of cortisol and allowing for proper hormone creation and liver function.  There are some simple things you can do every day to keep your fight or flight response at bay.

  • Hit the sack early and nap whenever possible. Getting a solid 8+ hours of sleep a day reduces cortisol levels significantly. Read tips for the best night's sleep here.
  • Meditate daily, even if it's just for 10 minutes. Calm and Headspace are 2 great meditation apps.
  • Bypass TV for a good book or your favorite tunes. Music and reading can have calming effects on the brain, especially when you are feeling stressed.
  • Hang out with people who make you laugh and engage you in positive conversation.
  • Breathe! It may seem ridiculous that we need to remind ourselves to do this, but think about how often you take a full, deep, fulfilling breath during the day. It's probably a whole lot less than it should be.
  • Eat a nutrient dense diet void of refined sugars and caffeine. There are specific ways to eat that support hypothyroidism and adrenal fatigue. Reach out to me if you would like more info.

Make it a goal to just being good to yourself. There is often a guilt associated with rest and a sense of accomplishment with pushing yourself past exhaustion, working as many hours as you can and being an overachiever.  Our bodies are amazing and can handle a lot, but there is a point where they are going to fight back and eventually shut down. Luckily, they are also resiliant and by paying attention to how you manage your stress and fuel your body you can avoid many of the issues I've had to live through. I’d love to hear your experience with stress and some of the things you do to manage the stress in your life.